Working Without a Net
January 8, 2010 § 3 Comments
Today I learned that this essay, which was submitted in September for an essay contest (how cheesy, anyway) was not chosen as one of the finalists. And so I am liberated to share it with you, a much better fate for it and me. Thanks to all of you for your continued interest and enthusiasm, both much appreciated. — L.V.
Working without a Net
an examination of “growing up”
by Larkin Vonalt
My mother murmurs in her sleep. I touch her shoulder, whisper her name. She looks up at me in the half-light of the hospital room. I wake her now to say goodnight so she won’t wake up later and wonder where I am. Bending to kiss her face, I tell her I will see her in the morning, an old childhood spell. If you say it, it must be so. I would stay later, but the parking garage closes in a few minutes.
My mother is recovering: they have reworked the roadmap of her heart. It is a serious surgery, but also a routine one. As I push the button for the elevator, exhaustion tumbles over me like a rogue wave.
It is a wave of profound relief, of fatigue, of loneliness. My mother’s sisters have been here too, and her brothers and cousins and friends, but they are all at liberty to go home and think about something else. I wish I could call my father, but my father is dead. It’s a long walk to the car.
These days, I’ve been thinking about aerialists. How they work with utter faith that all the connections will connect, that the ropes will hold, that they won’t look down, lose their balance and topple. At the circus, there’s a net of course, but out where men and women walk the high wire, out there over Niagara Falls, between the ill-fated towers of the World Trade Center, over the Grand Canyon, there’s no net.
That’s what this feels like: no net. For years, that safety net was such an integral part of my life that I never even really thought about it much. Most of my life I’ve been proclaiming my independence. From the time I was old enough to walk and climbed out on the porch roof to see what that was like, I was asserting myself. As a kid, I repeatedly got into trouble for going too far, too fast, with the wrong people and never with permission.
As an only child left to my own devices, I explored empty houses, railway viaducts, the view of the world from the back of a horse. I had the moxie of the unvanquished. Even when we moved to England and the lunch ladies made me cry because of the way I held my fork, my stepfather stepped in and set them straight.
Robert Frost wrote cynically that home is where when you have to go there they have to take you in. That wasn’t my home. My home was more akin to that of Max, king of the wild things. When I got home from my adventures, dinner was still hot. Home was where you could get a Band-Aid, a dollar, an oatmeal cookie, and it was where you better be if it was after eight o’clock on a school night. Even as I struggled against the rules, and the confinement – I wanted to fly! – my sense of confidence grew from knowing the safety net was always there.
Even after coming home meant coming home for the summer, or coming home for Christmas, I relied on my parents. They would help with the rent. I could turn to them for airfare home. Birthdays and holidays brought something wonderful in the mail. It was almost like being a grown-up.
There were visits filled with a mix of applause and admonition over dinners I never could afford on my own. There were manila envelopes full of clippings, there was plenty of advice and occasionally strenuous objection—at those times I resisted, protesting, “Look, I’m twenty years old, I know what I’m doing!”
Once, when my Volkswagen lost its clutch, I parked it in the landlord’s garage until I could save the money to fix it. Finally after six months of being able to save nothing, I gave up and called my father, and he sent me $350. It turns out it was just the clutch cable: $35. I had money for that! I can’t remember what I used the car repair bailout for now.
One summer when I was 22, I came home for a visit. My job had been difficult; school wasn’t going well, I was in last throes of an awful relationship. I just needed to rest for a bit. When my mother and I pulled into the driveway, before me was a huge painted sign propped up along 30 feet of fence. It read “Welcome Home Baby Girl!” That night in my childhood bed, I cried with relief at being home. But two days later, I was fractious as a racehorse, wanting to get back to my real life.
I was a girl with two fathers, and when I married, I walked unescorted up the aisle. Not wanting to hurt the feelings of my father or my stepfather, I decided I would make the trip alone. I was a grown woman, after all, how hard could it be?
I watched from the church doors as little girls, my husband’s daughters, danced and spun along the sidewalk in their lawn dresses, the skirts twirling and lifting, the bridesmaids ushering them into procession.
Then they were away, down the aisle in front of me. The Church pianist played the opening notes of Clair de Lune. Those first steps — I might have been a spindly-legged foal; they were so uncertain and shaky. I would not have been more nervous stepping out onto a tightrope.
Maybe it would have been better to have asked all of them, a phalanx of parents to walk with me to the altar. Or maybe it was better that I learned I could do it myself, even if I felt a little shaky. There is a kind of exhilaration in being afraid and doing it anyway.
Even newly married, with two children thrown in for good measure, and certainly feeling every inch the adult, I never had to work without the net. If we were short for a family vacation, a check arrived in the mail. Every occasion was marked not just with a stack of presents in a brown cardboard box, but a butter yellow check inside each and every greeting card. We knew the checks would come, and we grew to depend on them.
Then the unthinkable: my stepfather left us one August morning. It was eleven years ago, he was brushing his teeth in a London flat, when he shot away straight to the sun. The coroner said the heart attack was so catastrophic that he was dead before his body hit the floor.
My mother had been with us that summer, and she stayed on, and that part of feeling safe slipped away. The house on the river was gone, there were no more trips to the Florida coast, no more sitting on the porch watching the dolphins play in the water. There were no more funny postcards or elaborate floral arrangements. Never again the voice on the telephone, seeing what I needed, what I celebrated, what I mourned.
Then my father died of cancer, not unexpectedly, and yet his death took my breath away. This was the person who had been my rock, my right arm, one of my very best friends. He supported me in every venture I took on, whether hare-brained or brilliant, never letting on which one he thought it was. His death left me feeling not like I had slipped from a high wire, but like I had become untethered from a spacecraft, utterly alone in a strange place, with no idea how I might get home.
Yet, I did get home. I put one foot after another across that chasm of grief, and arrived on the other side. Now there is nothing left of my brilliant childhood but me and my mother, and that relationship is changing. I am learning to take care of her, to make sure she has what she needs, to watch her while she’s sleeping, to cast our old childhood spells for safe-keeping.
So I learn to work without a net, to stand on my own two feet, and in turn, my husband and I become the same for our children, for our son who is “Nearly fifteen, for Pete’s sake, why can’t I go” and for our eldest daughter who, though she is all grown up herself, needs us in particular right now, and for our younger daughter, who pretends not to know us, but knows in her heart that we are always there for her, as she flies through the air from trapeze to trapeze to trapeze.